Let me get this straight. Jenna Bush, the 19-year-old daughter of President George W. Bush, a woman who has been all over TV, all over the newspapers, who appeared on the campaign trail, who danced with her father before a million flashbulbs, and who, outside the Dallas Cowboys, might be one of the most recognizable faces in Texas, tries to buy booze in Austin using a fake ID?

It isn’t her liver we should be worrying about. It’s her brain.

But college freshmen will be college freshmen. I’m more intrigued by President Bush’s stance, which is silence. Indignant silence.

“I would urge all of you to very carefully think through how much you want to pursue this,” a clench-jawed Ari Fleischer, Bush’s press secretary, warned reporters last week. He said his boss would have no comment.

“Any reaction of the parents is parental,” Fleischer declared, “it is not governmental.”

Oh. So now it’s parental.

Happy publicity? Sure

Funny. It was more than parental when Bush was running for office. In fact, it was pretty governmental when he wooed voters with his fatherly dedication and paraded his family before the cameras, part of the happy, self-congratulatory Bush dynasty that seems delighted to get attention as long as it’s the right kind.

In fact, it’s okey-dokey with the Bushes to celebrate anything about the kinfolk, from Papa’s jumping out of airplanes to Jeb’s Ricky Martin-ish son George P., all the way down to the family dog Millie, about which Barbara Bush once wrote a book.

But when smudge marks appear on the silver spoon, it’s nobody’s business? Sorry, but as the bartender says about alcoholic and nonalcoholic — you can’t have it both ways.

Now, don’t misunderstand. Even though the Bush girls have been charged with violating the laws of Texas — Jenna for the second time in a month — we need not make life difficult for the twins. Their father already did that. He ran for president — reportedly against the wishes of his daughters, who feared precisely this kind of unfair attention.

But Bush ran — and won — on a platform that roundly criticized Bill Clinton’s loosey-goosey approach to the decorum of his office. He all but sneered at Clinton’s lack of control over his personal life. And Bush touted his record as Texas governor, including cracking down on crime.

In fact, Bush pushed through tougher Texas penalties for liquor law violators
— which Jenna could be facing should she slip up again.

With all that on his record, Bush’s decision to duck comment on this mini-mess does not suggest privacy.

It suggests privilege.

The president’s example

Now I don’t think Bush owes America a play-by-play. Families — even first families — have a right to private conversations.

But to pretend this isn’t being seen by the whole country is foolish, as is pretending that there aren’t teenagers who might now say, when pondering the should-I-try-to-buy-beer-tonight question, “Well, the president’s daughter did it, how bad could it be?”

Because of that, Bush owes a comment. It’s called setting an example. It’s the same issue Clinton faced after his dalliance with Monica Lewinsky, when he somehow convinced himself that his infidelities wouldn’t lead at least some Americans to say, “Come on, even the president did it.”

Like it or not, the highest office in the land comes with strings attached. Sometimes you pull them, and sometimes they pull you. When kids play with alcohol, they’re not playing in the sand box: It can lead to drunken driving, it can lead to early addiction, it can be part of everything from rowdy behavior to death.

Bush already goofed when he tried to hide his own alcoholic offense in the past. This time he should be more pre-emptive. By speaking briefly about the lessons learned from his daughters, he could make the White House more human.

By telling everyone to shut up and leave his clan alone, he makes it an ivory tower.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com.

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